There are some indicators that our economy is rebounding. The U.S. is still losing jobs, but at an increasingly slower pace. And earlier this month, the Dow Jones reached 10,000 for the first time in a year.

Yet, as small business leaders know all too well, the marketplace is still a rough and tumble playground. Consumers continue to keep a tight grip on their purse strings, and that means lagging company sales. At the same time, access to credit hasn’t measurably improved, and leaders are scrambling to retain top performers after several recent polls have indicated that a talent exodus may be on the horizon.

With all of this happening, small firms that are able to maintain or extend employee tenure, and do the same with revenue growth, serve as shining examples that there is opportunity to mine even in a down economy. And in fact this was the message of The Wall Street Journal, our media partner for the Top Small Workplaces, when they announced the 2009 winners on September 28.

As the table below shows, the 2009 Top Small Workplaces represent perhaps our most diverse pool yet when it comes to geography, industry and size of workforce:

Organization Headquarters Industry

Employee # (2008)

Advance Technology Institute Charleston, NC Technology

64

Analytical Graphics Inc. Exton, PA Software

256

Anthony Wilder Design/Build Inc. Cabin John, MD Construction/Engineering

32

Bailard Inc. Foster City, CA Financial advisory

52

Barfield Murphy Shank & Smith P.C. Birmingham, AL Accounting

110

Censeo Consulting Group Washington DC Consulting

43

HCSS Houston, TX Software

107

Mike’s Carwash Inc. Indianapolis, IN Retail Trade

250

Radio Flyer Inc. Chicago, IL Consumer Goods Manufacturing

51

Root Learning Sylvania, OH Consulting

92

Skyline Construction Inc. San Francisco, CA Construction/Engineering

109

Steppenwolf Theatre Company Chicago, IL Entertainment/Arts

75

The Railroad Associates Corporation Hershey, PA Construction/Engineering

30

Tohono O’odham Nursing Care Authority Sells, AZ Health and wellness services

125

Woodmeister Master Builders Holden, MA Construction/Engineering

184

Their diversity is a strength when it comes to serving as best practice examples of people practices done right – that is, those that are sustainable and are better for business, people and society. Witness these impressive metrics, which serve as benchmarks that every small business should strive to attain:

  • Average annual revenue growth (2007-2008): 18 percent
  • Average annual revenue (2008): $36 million
  • Average employee tenure (2007-2008): 5 years
  • Average turnover (2007-2008): 8 percent
  • Average years in business: 26

It’s telling that average annual revenues held steady among the 2009 Winners compared with the 2008 pool. In addition, you can’t pin a decrease in average turnover of 5 percent from 2008 to 2009 on just a souring job market – these companies are strategic in how they attract and retain top talent.

For instance, Indiana-based Mike’s Carwash, founded in 1948, has experienced most of its growth in the past two decades by turning to benefits that are rare in their industry such as generous college tuition for employees who work during their summers and the school year. Mike’s Carwash also practices open book management and explains financials to all workers.

Another great example of attracting, retaining and especially tapping the ideas of its workforce is Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The leadership of this 33-year-old entertainment/arts organization – an industry first among the Top Small Workplaces – can trace a direct line between employee engagement best practices like pairing junior staff with older, longer-term mentors and ticket sales growth.

The 2009 winners also show that small firms can find success by combining ownership and human capital models in ways that lay new ground. Such is the case at California-based Skyline Construction, a contractor of LEED-certified buildings. The 109-member firm is unusual in that it’s a 100 percent employee-owned ESOP company that includes union members. Skyline’s practice of relying on a peer-selected employee committee for strategic planning is one of many that has helped the business land projects for the likes of Google.

There are other themes among this year’s winners that make them worthy of further study. In this tough environment, more and more businesses – especially smaller ones that lack the resources of their larger competitors – are realizing the cost savings and revenue potential that can come from making partners out of their stakeholders. Pennsylvania-based TRAC (The Railroad Associates Corporation) is a model in this regard, using a two-pronged attack of completing jobs with fewer workers and building long-term relationships with customers to grow annual revenues to over $7 million in only nine years.

Another theme, one we noted last year, has gained momentum: using winning employee recruitment and development strategies to earn a reputation as an employer of choice. This helps firms choose from more motivated candidates and develop talent from within while reducing recruiting costs. Exemplifying this theme in 2009 is Tohono O’odham Nursing Care Authority. With 125 employees, or 4.4 percent of the population of Sells, AZ, where this nonprofit is based, Tohono provides generously for its workforce through health care benefits and education and training assistance, even as it fulfills its mission to ensure proper nursing and hospice care for the community’s tribal elders.

If you had to bet on a group of small organizations that are best poised to grow as the economy continues to pick up – and help their local economies and the national economy by stemming job losses – you’d have unbeatable odds with our 2009 Top Small Workplaces. Stay tuned as we dig deeper into these extraordinary firms to share what’s working best for them that you can adapt for your business.